BWW Review: MOTOWN THE MUSICAL, Bristol Hippodrome
Having the entire Motown back catalogue to work with must be a dream starting point for any jukebox musical. There are decades worth of hit after hit to cram in. And cram them in Motown The Musical certainly does. 66 of them to be precise. It's a whistle-stop tour of all of Motown's greatest artists.
At the helm is Berry Gordy - founder of Motown Records. Not only did he write the book for the show, he's also put himself at the heart of it. Thankfully, he doesn't hold back on his own failings- the show opens with Gordy sulking and not wanting to attend the lavish 25th Anniversary party for Motown that's been thrown in his honour.
Rewind 25 years though and the show delves into Gordy's beginnings through a series of short vignettes that culminate in his family lending him the money to start his own record label. With that, Motown is born.
A succession of soon to be famous artists come through his door- Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and Stevie Wonder to name but a few. The hit factory continues but with great success comes great risk. Not all the artists are happy and Gordy is forced to make tough decisions that don't always prove popular with people he has nurtured from a young age.
Ironically, it's Motown's success that is the biggest downfall of the show. By putting in so many songs, the only character we really get to know on any level is Gordy himself. The other characters are given little chance to develop beyond 2D portrayals despite a willing and talented cast. Seemingly seminal moments of artists leaving the label are gone in a flash with no chance to develop.
Where the show works best is when it fuses the music with the culture and politics of the day. Edwin Starr's "War" with the backdrop of Vietnam war footage captures perfectly why Motown was more than a record label. It's the standout moment of the show.
Edward Baruwa is a likeable Gordy and provides the energy to drive the show forward. His solo numbers are note-perfect and his passion is palpable. Karis Anderson does an equally good job of taking Diana Ross from excitable teenager to experienced professional.
David Korin's minimal set design is slick and professional when combined with Daniel Brodie's clever projections. It doesn't feel lavish but it does help move us through the decades effectively.
If you're after an in-depth look at the ups and downs of Motown or what the people behind the music were like, you may feel a little short-changed. If however, what you're after is a reminder of everything that made Motown Records great- you might just find yourself "Dancing In The Street" on the way home.
Photo credit: Tristam Kenton